If Saw Palmettos Could Talk

Oh the stories they would tell….

Serenoa repens a.k.a. saw palmetto is considered to be a foundation species, the definition of which should not be confused with the cream colored makeup you put on your face…this plant is most certainly the last thing you would want to rub on your cheeks. Instead, it’s rather meant as a base, or to put it in more ecological terms, it’s the bedrock upon which an entire community may thrive.

Like rebar struck through concrete, the scaly roots and trunks of saw palmettos snake through the ground, helping to anchor the gypsy soul of Florida’s sandy soils. Ranging widely throughout much of the southeast, this notoriously slow growing palm can be found in every county in Florida, growing at an average rate of just 2 centimeters a year (this rate varies based on region and habitat type).

Saw palmetto trunk
If you’re reading this on a computer screen, two centimeters is roughly the length of the word “slow”, grown in just one year.

These impossibly sluggish growth rates make it a model of persistence, putting even Thomas the Tank Engine to shame many times over, but for just how long are they capable of living? Biologists have sought this answer in the past, but since the saw palm doesn’t have growth rings like trees and also clones itself, its lifespan has been extremely challenging to calculate. That however, was all before the advent of DNA technology and it’s with this new tool at hand that a recent study has taken a much more intimate look at the saw palmetto.


While reading the “Methods” section of this study may be a fitful punishment for students in detention, with concepts and math that soar like airliners over the general public's head, I believe everyone can appreciate the results.

A palmetto leaf

In the past, it has been suggested that 500 year old saw palmetto ramets (clones) are common, but no estimates had been given for genets; essentially groups of clones with the same genetic makeup. So using DNA fingerprinting techniques, Takahashi and his colleagues at Bucknell University set to work to do just that. Being rather conservative at first they estimated that the ages of five saw palmettos in their 20 x 20 meter study plot, on the Lake Wales Ridge, “ranged from 1,227 to 5,215 years”. While this is certainly incredible in its own right, it did not account for the even slower growth rates of sprouts that may, at a minimum, take 100 years to reach adulthood. When this is factored in, the “maximum age of genet 1 is estimated at roughly 8,000” years old, leading the authors to surmise “it is reasonable to think that 10,000 year-old Serenoa genets may be common in scrubby flatwoods habitats.”

Ten thousand years!

The mere thought of something living for 1,000 years, let alone 10,000, is so obscure to us humans — a species which at its oldest may live to just a hundredth of that. But there are plants on this earth, often right in our own backyards, that have been alive since before the concept of a year ever came to be.


The serrated ridges along the leaf stem that give the “saw” palmetto it’s name

So to put it in more digestible terms, what could a single, well situated, 10,000 year old Florida saw palmetto have witnessed in its lifetime?

It would have narrowly missed the arrival of the first humans in Florida, as well as the extinction of mammoths and saber-toothed cats roughly 12,000 years ago, but most major historical events afterwards would have occurred in its lifetime. For instance: Florida would have been much bigger due to lower sea levels 10,000 years ago, so our plant could have experienced sea-level rise first hand. Then as time progressed, it would have provided sustenance and medicine to Florida’s first civilization for centuries, tested the resolve of head-strong conquistadors and petrified colonists, served as a backdrop to several wars, had a moon-bound spaceship fly overhead, and then finally watched as citrus groves and agricultural fields gave way to golf courses and high rises…If they could only talk, they might compare the pierce of primitive arrowheads to the slice of Spanish swords and colonial musket balls.

Saw palmettos in the Smith Preserve at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Unfortunately though, they can’t talk; which means it’s up to us to decode their secrets in order to prepare for the future. And why wouldn’t we? For thousands of years these plants have not only provided shelter and food to all those around them, they’ve done it all while delivering stability and resilience to an entire region. Ensuring that, as the world changed around them, they would remain.

Gopher tortoise (left), Bee pollinating saw palmetto flowers (middle), Sun shining through a saw palmetto leaf (right)

But google “saw palmetto” today and the first thing you see isn’t the role it plays in over 2,000 different insect-flower relationships, or that it can live for 10,000 years. No, the results are overwhelmingly geared towards medicinal usages and effects and while these are important to note, this prehistoric plant has so much more to offer us in its silence.

Perspective

Out of all of its incredible traits and uses one of the most profound pieces of wisdom these plants have to offer is a change in how we view the world, because in a society that’s dominated by high-speed internet, fast lanes and speed dating, it’s nice to know that speed isn’t the only formula for success. That meters and megabytes per second aren’t always better than centimeters per year and that as we rush from task to task in our busy lives we can find comfort in the fact that there is both beauty and power in those that grow slow.

Bee pollinating a saw palmetto flower

Here at the Conservancy we work every day to make sure plants like the saw palmetto have a place and a voice in the future of Southwest Florida.

Click here to learn more about the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Environmental Science department.

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